Perception and reality on parade

Published 9:03 pm Monday, October 21, 2013

There’s an old trope that says perception is nine-tenths of reality. I got to thinking about this phrase and its meaning during the Peanut Festival parade a few weekends ago.

As I stood on West Washington Street shooting photos as the parade went by, the Suffolk Police Department’s unit came by with its equipment, shined up and looking its best for the parade viewers.

Part of the unit was the department’s police boat, outfitted with numerous pieces of safety equipment to help police do their work on the city’s waterways and keep citizens safe when they’re playing or working on the water.

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A couple of women were sitting in front of me. One cut her eyes at the other as the boat floated past, and I knew what was coming next.

“Yeah, they don’t have any money,” she said sarcastically. “They can buy that boat, but they can’t give the teachers any raises.”

I quickly began imagining what would have happened if Mayor Linda T. Johnson had heard that remark. I think I know the mayor well enough to surmise she would have tapped the woman on the shoulder, introduced herself and explained that the funding for the boat came from a port security grant program as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In other words, it was bought with federal money that was earmarked for the boat, and city leaders would have been in deep water if they had used it for anything else.

But the mayor wasn’t around to hear the comment, and the parade kept moving. A little while later, another nice piece of city equipment came by, and a similar remark came from the woman.

How much or how little money the city actually has available in its coffers is of little consequence to most Suffolk citizens. Very few of them will ever look at a city balance sheet, comb through the proposed budget when it’s released in April of every year or even turn on the television to watch a City Council meeting. Most of them probably threw away the awkwardly named “Citizen Centric Report” that came with their tax bills this year without reading it.

But thousands of them line up for the two parades held through downtown every year, and they see the nice public safety equipment the fire and police departments are so proud to display. If the city owns that equipment, many of them think, the city must have purchased it with money it could have used to give raises to teachers.

That’s exactly the perception leaders hope to counter when they talk about “getting the message out,” which was part of what the Citizen Centric Report was supposed to accomplish. It doesn’t look like it worked — at least not for the woman at the parade.

Does the city really need to keep spending money getting the message out when current methods aren’t working? I don’t think so. I think if the city sends the message that it cares about the citizens more than it cares about its image, the rest of the message will take care of itself.